“American Dirt”  was one of the most hotly anticipated book releases of 2020. And the novel has been met with some praise—including an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey as the latest pick for her book club. But some book critics and Latinx writers have criticized the novel’s subject matter and its author, and more widely condemned the publishing world.

The novel follows a middle-class mother and son’s escape from Mexico to the U.S border after her husband and family are brutally murdered by a cartel during a quinceñera. Disguised as Central American refugees traveling by foot and train, they discover the dangers of the migrant’s journey while fleeing from the cartel’s leader. 

Author Jeanine Cummins acknowledged she was apprehensive about writing the story, because of her mixed Irish and Puerto Rican heritage. However, she wrote that she felt compelled to humanize to the “faceless brown mass” of migrants at the southern border.

But critics say the author’s stated purpose with American Dirt is misguided because it relies on stereotypes and trauma. Despite the author’s intention, Latinx writers contend that Cummins’ story isn’t authentic, and lacks the nuance to tell the story accurately.

In a widely-shared review writer Myriam Gurba wrote:

“Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it. With her ambition in place, she shoved the “faceless” out of her way, ran for the microphone and ripped it out of our hands, deciding that her incompetent voice merited amplification.”

Other critics are wondering why the publisher gave a white author such a strong publicity push while writers of color and their stories are so often ignored. Still, both Cummins and the book’s publisher are standing by the book. 

Should fiction writers be more conscious of writing from an outsider’s perspective? Who has the right to tell what stories?

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